Twenty-eight-year-old Oliver spends his time studying, hanging out with friends, and trying to charm his new girlfriend, Signe, when he finds out that his lower-back pain is actually testicular cancer. Oliver struggles between maintaining his happy-go-lucky toehold in the life he shaped for himself and honing in on what will ultimately be best for him in the world he has been thrust into.
Hi Kristian thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the festival?
Hi Niger, yes I am! We are six people from the Chemo Brain team going to the festival and we just figured out plane tickets and a place to stay. It’s the whole team’s first time at the festival, so it’s all very exciting.
This is the first time a Danish Series has been selected for Sundance & Chemo Brain will have its International Premiere in the Indie Episodic section at Sundance 2020, does this add any additional pressure on you?
Well, it’s really exciting and I’m very honoured that it’s the first Danish series to be selected, but I actually don’t feel any extra pressure because of it. I’m mainly just looking forward to see how an international audience will react to the series. The series is about a guy who gets testicular cancer, which unfortunately is very common in the the world, but we have some comedy elements in the series, which always are hard to know how translate from one culture to the other.
What does it mean to you to be at Sundance with Chemo Brain?
It means a lot because of different reasons. First of all, it has always been a dream of mine to go to Sundance, since it’s seems like an amazing festival. Career wise, it means a lot, since it’s a big recognition of my work. It’s the first time I’ve directed something in a longer format, so it’s a big achievement to have it selected to Sundance and hopefully it can create some momentum for my career both in Denmark and internationally.
Can you tell me a little bit about Chemo Brain, what was the inspiration behind this series?
The series is loosely based on different patient cases with the most inspiration from my co-writer’s friend, Kristian Erlandsen, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.
Episode 1 is almost an exact depiction of Kristian’s firsts day of his cancer treatment.
The following four episodes are based on his and other patients’ interactions with relatives and the feeling of being excluded from their regular life as they knew it. On an emotional and thematic level the series is about being left behind and trying to keep up with life even though it’s not possible. And about accepting change even when it seems most impossible.
Did you have any apprehensions about creating a series that has dealt with such a serious issue?
Yes, I definitely did. I haven’t experienced cancer myself, so when my co-writer Johan Wang pitched the idea for me before anything had been written, I took some time to figure out if I was the right person to tell the story.
In the end I just felt the story so strong and connected with the emotional journey, so I decided to do it. I felt a connection to the story, since I in a period of my life dealt with heavy anxiety and could relate to the experience of a sudden change in my life, when it’s least expected. I used a lot of my own emotional experience from this period of my life, when writing and directing the series.
"When I moved to Copenhagen from the countryside of Denmark in my early twenties, I started out earning my money as an editor."
You co-wrote Chemo Brain with Johan Wang how did this collaboration come about?
Johan Wang and I went to class together in high school. Back then I produced a rap song for him, which turned out terrible, since I didn’t know what I was doing. And this is actually the first project we’ve done together since then! It’s Johan’s first fiction project as a writer and I’ve only written shorts before this and have a feature script in the making, so it was all a very exciting new experience. Luckily Johan and I have great chemistry and we balance each other out really well, when writing together. I have a more dramatic tendency when writing and Johan has a more comedic tendency, which works really well together.
It was really important for both of us that all the technical and socially aspects of the story were as true to reality as possible, so a lot of doctors and patients have read the material as we went along – this was a huge help for us as well to make it as true to the life at the hospital as possible.
Is it hard to ‘let go’ of a project like this once it’s wrapped or do you hold on to it thinking ‘I should/could have done that differently?
In general it’s not that hard for me too ‘let go’ of the project. There are some scenes in the series, it always pains me to see, and some others I’m really happy about. But I think it’s this time around, because we only had eight days of shooting 75 minutes of film – and I just think it’s insane that we succeeded in shooting all the required materials for the series with such a crazy time schedule. I only dared to dream about it turning out as well as it did. And that had never been possible without the amazing cast and crew on the project.
What was the most challenging part of making chemo Brain?
In my opinion the most challenging part of making Chemo Brain was the writing part. We had many difficulties figuring out the dramaturgy of the series, because of some challenges in the story. We only had 15 minutes for each episode and we had to jump in time between episodes to be able to show the different stages of Oliver’s chemo sessions. At the same we had to stay at the hospital the most of the time, because of time and budget reasons. So all in all, we spent a lot of time trying to make it exciting and emotional connective within these limitations.
Another big challenge was to shoot it all in eight days. Again, it was only possible people worked so hard and were really well prepared.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes, I bought my first DV camera, when I was 14 years old and ever since it has been the only thing I’ve wanted to work with. When growing up I didn’t know anybody else working in the creative business, so it has been a journey for me to find my way into directing and figuring out how the industry works. But on my way, I’ve met a lot of different people, who helped pushing me in the right direction.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
It has changed a lot! When I moved to Copenhagen from the countryside of Denmark in my early twenties, I started out earning my money as an editor. And I was lucky to get involved in some pretty big productions early on. So when I finally got funding for my first short film, I was so focused on production value and aesthetics that I forgot all about the acting. All this changed, when I did my short film “Forever Now”, where all the dialogue was improvised, because I figured out the power of presence. From there on I’ve tried to keep it simple in my films and have from film to film slowly been adding new elements on top of the acting to develop myself and my film language.
Has there been any advice you’ve been give that has really helped you?
I was once given the advice to not get too into commercials early on in my career. The reasons why was to not become too used to the fast money, the commercial aesthetics and the risk of not being accepted by the film industry, when you later on would start working on your own projects.
I partly took this advice, since I haven’t directed any commercials, but instead I ended up editing a lot of commercials - from which I put the money into my films. It worked well for me, because people don’t really connect my editing work with my work as a writer/director. And I was still able to get a lot of experience and talks with different directors about their methods, when working with them. All my editing work has also taught me to think in pictures, when writing films.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow writer/director?
If films is the only thing you feel like doing, just keep on going! And if you on your career path feel like you stagnate in your career progression, take a critical look on your life at the moment and see if you need to change something. Is something holding you back or do you need to make a small change on your career path to keep you developing in the direction you want?
It sounds simple, but every time I felt unhappy with where my path was taking me, I always took some time to reflect and changed something in my life to get back on track.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on different projects: I’m working on a new short film, which is my last year film from my film education Super16. I’m working on it with writer Malthe Miehe-Renard and producer Andreas Bak from Zentropa Productions. On in the early stages on a new TV show, I’m developing with my co-writer from Chemo Brain, Johan Wang. And finally, I’m in the early stages on my first feature film, I’m developing with producer Andreas Bak.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Chemo Brain?
I hope people will connect with the character Oliver and get a better understanding of the emotional process of getting diagnosed with testicular cancer and going through the treatment process. And I hope that people understand that there’s no right way to react, when someone next to kin is diagnosed with cancer – we all react differently. But often people need more attention later in the process, where fewer people still visit - usually everybody visits in the beginning. Finally, I hope that people will understand that the most people, who have been diagnosed with cancer, often will fear the relapses for the rest of their lives.